Public Historian Takes a Closer Look at the History of Valentine’s Day

February 10, 2022

Valentine’s Day is on a Monday this year and it is important to understand that while it seems like a more commercial-founded holiday this holiday actually has historical roots.  I decided to take a closer look into the history of Valentine’s Day. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the true origins of the holiday are vague at best; for instance, it has been suggested that the holiday has origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia which was a celebration of the coming of spring held in mid-February. Lupercalia was also known as a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

          It became St. Valentine’s Day towards the end of the 5th century when Pope Gelasius I forbid the celebration of Lupercalia and was often attributed to replacing it with St. Valentine’s Day; there were a number of Saint Valentines in the church, who all became martyrs, who the holiday was possibly named for. One example is that it is believed it was named for a priest who was martyred about 270 CE by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus. According to legend the priest signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and, by some accounts, healed from blindness. Another legend stated that he defied the emperor’s orders and secretly married couples to prevent husbands from war. The holiday was not celebrated as a day of romance until about the 14th century.

            Formal valentines appeared in the 1500s, and by the 1700s individuals were using commercially printed cards. The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s. On the Valentines, they commonly depict Cupid, the Roman god of love, along with hearts. Birds also became a symbol of the day since it was thought that the avian mating season begins in mid-February. The holiday is popular in the United States as well as in Britain, Canada, and Australia, and it is also celebrated in other countries, including Argentina, France, Mexico, and South Korea. In the Philippines it is the most common wedding anniversary, and mass weddings of hundreds of couples are not uncommon on that date. The holiday has expanded to expressions of affection among relatives and friends.

          At the time I wrote this post, I did not find many academic studies written in books and journals about Valentine’s Day. What I did come across were articles and a list of children’s Valentine’s Day books. I included links to books on Valentine’s Day in the list below. There was an article from American Quarterly written by Vivian R. Pollak about Emily Dickinson’s Valentines. Emily Dickinson was an American poet born in Amherst, Massachusetts who wrote almost 1,800 poems and of those poems fewer than a dozen were published during her life; scholars identified her writing period was between 1858 and 1865. Pollak’s article, published in 1974, discussed her early works including two humorous Valentines as well as the history of noncommercial Valentines during the 19th century, and argued that Dickinson was writing poetry before 1858. According to the Emily Dickinson Museum website, these early writings were published anonymously in the early 1850s. The first Valentine was referred to as “Magnum bonum, harem scarum” which was a valentine letter published in Amherst College’s Indicator in February 1850, and the second Valentine was published in Springfield Daily Republican titled “A Valentine” called “‘Sic transit gloria mundi’” on February 20, 1852.

      A periodical about St. Valentine and English poet Geoffery Chaucer in Jack B. Oruch’s “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February (appeared in Speculum in The Medieval Academy) came from The Wilson Quarterly was called “The First Valentine”. It discusses how Oruch pointed out the first time St. Valentine was connected with romance occurs in Chaucer’s poem “Parlement of Foules” when Nature summons the birds on “seynt Valentynes day” and commands them to choose mates. Chaucer and other writers’ work in the 14th century and after led to associating St. Valentine and Valentine’s day with romance and love.

      In the end, Valentine’s Day is about celebrating the people you love in your lives including family, friends, pets, and romantic partners.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!!

Thank you for reading! If you would like to support my book project, check out my Buy Lindsey a Coffee page to learn more.

Links and Sources:

Vivian R. Pollak, “Emily Dickenson’s Valentines”, American Quarterly, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), pp. 60-78.

Emily Dickinson Museum:

https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/

The First Valentine The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring, 1982), pp. 37-38.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Valentines-Day

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Valentine#ref1290121

https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2

https://www.byrdsbooks.com/book/9781638786337

https://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/valentines-day-books-for-kids

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